Enterprise Tech

Spain's Santander, the City That Runs on Sensors


Spain's Santander, the City That Runs on Sensors

Photograph by Josie Elias/Getty Images

Buried under the streets of Santander, Spain—or discreetly affixed to buses, utility poles, and dumpsters—are some 12,000 electronic sensors that track everything from traffic to noise to surfing conditions at local beaches. This digital nervous system puts the city of 180,000 at the forefront of one of the hottest trends in urban management: streaming real-time data to the public in an effort to increase the efficiency and reduce the stress of city life.

Santander’s narrow downtown streets are dotted with electronic signs that direct drivers to the nearest available parking spaces, reducing traffic congestion. Sensors are being installed on dumpsters to signal when they need emptying and are being buried in parks to measure soil dampness, preventing sprinkler overuse. Coming soon: wireless-enabled meters that monitor water consumption at homes and businesses, phasing out door-to-door meter readers. Mayor Iñigo de la Serna says the effort, known as SmartSantander, will cut city waste-management bills 20 percent this year, and he projects a 25 percent drop in energy bills as sensors conserve use in public building systems. “Smart innovation is improving our economic fabric and the quality of life,” the mayor says. “It has changed the way we work.”

The 20-person SmartSantander development team, which is led by University of Cantabria engineering professor Luis Muñoz, has also pushed residents to help collect and make use of data. Anyone in the city can download a mobile app to complain about potholes or other nuisances and receive updates from officials. A separate app tracks the availability of buses and taxis in real time. Still another city-provided app lets people wave their smartphones over barcode decals in shop windows to get price information or place orders. “This is the future, and we are already there,” says local shoe store owner Angel Benito, who has received orders from customers using the app.

Thousands of urban centers are experimenting with pieces of the so-called smart-city model. They range from Atlanta’s wireless-enabled water meters to Stockholm’s digital traffic-management system, which it says has cut average commute times nearly in half. Scaling up a smart network for New York or Tokyo—or the chaotic megacities of the developing world—may be more difficult. IBM (IBM) Vice President Sylvie Spalmacin-Roma, who oversees the company’s smart-cities efforts in Europe, says many municipalities already have sensors to monitor traffic or air pollution. Most, though, lack the means to quickly analyze and act on the data. The company has helped Rio de Janeiro develop a system to assess the risk of floods and landslides.

Santander’s upfront investment in its network was €8.6 million ($11.1 million), with the bulk coming from a European Union grant. Mayor de la Serna says the network is largely self-sustaining, and utility companies and city contractors will foot most of the bill for expansion. Cantabria professor Muñoz says some of the greatest interest in SmartSantander has come from companies seeking to use the network to test products. International collaborators include IBM, NEC (6701:JP), Ericsson (ERIC), and Alcatel-Lucent (ALU). “As the Internet becomes entwined with the physical environment, there are great opportunities for innovation and commercialization,” says Assaf Biderman, associate director of the Senseable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has informally advised Santander.

The bottom line: With an initial outlay of $11.1 million, a small Spanish city has taken a leap forward in urban management through big data.

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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